Music in Film FAQ

When Do I Need to Get A License ?

The Copyright Act provides that the owner of a copyrighted work has certain exclusive rights, including (among others) the right to reproduce and distribute the work. In order to use a work that is owned by someone else, you need a license from the owner of the work (or the entity that administers the rights). Incorporating a copyrighted work into your film project is a reproduction that requires a license. Other uses, such as distributing soundtrack CDs of your film, also require a license.

When it comes to music, there are two copyrighted works that you must keep in mind. One is the composition—also referred to as the song, or the musical work—consisting of the notes and lyrics. The other is the sound recording—consisting of a recorded performance of the song by an artist or artists. If you are using a composition in connection with a movie, cartoon, commercial, TV show, etc., you must get permission to use the composition from the owner (or administrator) of the copyright in the composition. If you are also using a specific sound recording of that composition, you must also get the permission of the owner of that copyright.

What Kind of License Do I Need?

There are several different types of licenses that you may need, depending upon your specific requirements. The three most common are:

  • Synchronization License (permitting you to use the composition in an audio-visual work)
  • Master Recording License (permitting specified uses of a sound recording, including the use of the sound recording in an audio-visual work, and other uses as negotiated)
  • Mechanical License (for the distribution of the composition, for example, in a soundtrack CD)

What is a Synchronization License and How is it Different From A Master Recording License?

Often called a “Sync” license, a Synchronization License allows the user to reproduce a composition in connection with, or in timed relation to, a visual image such as a motion picture, video, or commercial. For example, if you wish to use the composition, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (written by Ashford and Simpson) in a commercial or a film, you must first obtain a Sync License from the owner (or administrator) of the copyright in that composition. Music publishers often administer the copyright in compositions.

Moreover, if you want to use the 1967 recording of “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” containing the recorded performances by Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell, then you must also obtain a Master Recording License from the owner of the copyright in the sound recording. Record labels often own the copyright in sound recordings.

The composition and a specific sound recording of it are two different copyrighted works! To use a specific sound recording, you must have a Master Recording License for the sound recording and a Sync License for the underlying composition. If you only want to rerecord the song to your specifications, you only need to obtain the Sync License.

Can I Change the Lyrics?

NO! Not even one word! Most composers are very protective about their songs. If it is your intent to make any lyric changes or any adaptation of the music, you must first get permission from the copyright holder. More than likely, this will require obtaining permission directly from the composers, their management, their music publishers, their attorneys or their estates. Parody lyrics must go through the appropriate approval process before incorporating them into the song.

How Do I Get A License?

The process of licensing begins with some basic research into the ownership of the composition (and of any actual sound recording) you want to use. It is important to have a clear idea of the nature and scope of the terms that you need. Once you’ve determined the scope of your project, the task of negotiating the necessary licenses and fees begins.

How Long Does it Take?

It depends. It can take from a few days to several weeks or longer to research, negotiate and finalize a license for the use of a composition with the composer, or the composer’s publisher or estate. The separate research and negotiation with the sound recording copyright owner for that license can also take from a few days to several weeks or longer.

What About Union Fees?

If you license an existing sound recording, you may be obligated to pay certain union “re-use” fees in addition to the sync and master recording license fees. Musicians’ fees typically are paid through the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and singers’ fees typically are paid through SAG-AFTRA. Contact those unions for more information.

What Is A Sound-Alike?

A sound-alike is a recording which mimics the unique sound or style of a particular recording artist. Even if you have obtained a sync license, this does not entitle you to make a sound-alike recording that mimics the unique sound or style of the original. Several performers have successfully sued in sound-alike cases.

How Do I Know Whether a Composition is in the Public Domain?

A work is in the public domain (PD) if copyright protection has expired or if copyright protection was never secured. Determining whether a work is in the public domain is a complicated legal issue, and copyright laws differ from country to country. A work that is in the public domain in the United States may still have copyright protection in another country. Arrangements of public domain works may also be copyrighted.

Unfortunately, there is no single resource to definitively identify PD material, and one should be cautious before assuming that a work is in the public domain. Issues of PD status, duration of copyright and copyright renewal can be complex, so you should research thoroughly and seek legal advice to avoid copyright infringement.

Why Can’t I License the Song I Want to Use?

A request to license a song may be denied for any number of reasons. The composer may not want to be associated with the particular subject matter, genre, or the product or project. In some instances, the publisher may feel that the exposure of the song will diminish its future value. And sometimes you may find that the cost to license a particular piece of music is cost prohibitive, especially if the music is commercially popular.

Music clearance and music publishing issues can be complicated. This information is for reference only. Please consult the proper organization(s) before using ANY music in any project.

Click on any of the organization links below for further assistance:

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